What We Do in the Dark
Creativity is not an urban legend that shows up out of thin air as you pray for it. It shows up out of work. But what happens when your work is lost in the darkness of creative block?
Creative block happens. Whether because life happens, the idea doesn’t hit, the stakeholders talk too little, or the inner critic talks too much, creative block just happens. Many see a creative block in an analogy of a dark tunnel we have to go through somehow, and the solution is the light at the end of that tunnel. But ‘somehow’ is tricky, and ‘somehow’ is where “creativity is supposed to surge”. The thing is: Creativity does not show up out of thin air.
Okay, if creativity does not show up out of thin air, where does it come from? If you’re asking me in the scientific sense, the associative theory of creative thinking (Mednick, S. 1962) says that it involves spreading the activation of concepts within semantic memory networks of the brain, which this journal article by Beaty, Roger E. et al (2021) supports.
But the papers are probably not why you’re here.
In a simpler sense, it would be that creativity is an action done by parts of your brain working together. Here I’ll emphasize that the word ‘action’ is integral to creativity.
But we the craftsman have done our actions, perhaps a little too much that we end up stuck in the dark. So what happens when creative block happens? Do we fight it with another action? Or do we just not do any further actions at all?
In this article, I’m putting forward my argument that the better question to ask would be:
Should we even consider fighting creative block?
(Em)brace the dark
I once read that creativity is beyond solving a problem with a solution. That it’s not about creating something great in every attempt, but more about showing up to work and consistency, whatever the quality. I’ve also read tips that, to steer from being stuck (or when you already are), one-day challenges can be of great help. It paces heavily on quantity over quality, to get the brain used to polishing our craft every day because “practice makes perfect” as we say it. None of these takes is wrong, because if it works for someone, then it works. At times, this works for me. Some other times, I’m stuck and too exhausted to even think about making something good.
This leads me to think that if creative block happens to (possibly) 99% of us, then wouldn’t that make creative block something normal bound to happen anyway?
But the sentencing above makes it sound… negatively nihilistic.
‘Acceptance’ is neither surrender nor resenting yourself for being in a creative block. In the analogy of the dark tunnel, acceptance is not sitting in the dark waiting for the light to shine on the exit you can take. Acceptance is sitting in the dark, breathing. Acceptance is taking your time with your hands and feet to roam and scan your surroundings. You’ll get hurt from touching sharp things or feel icky from touching some sludge, but that’s the only way you know that it’s there.
So breathe. That’s already one action.
You can choose to brace yourself against the dark or embrace yourself in it. Either or both, acceptance nods to what kind of next step or course of action you take that matters.
Make something bad
“Why would I do that?” You may ask.
With craftsmanship, expectations exist — and they will. Externally, and/or internally. Then pressure (the negative one) raises the stakes. Your craftsmanship is on the line, and your integrity will be scrutinized. There’s money on the table. Tedious efforts of looking for one idea you believe in, because if you don’t believe in it, how would anyone else? The thing you’re working on will meet a rigorous process of collaborative input. It’s one voice after another until every idea now sounds like a mistake.
Come along: internal expectations. As the craftsman, you know the quality of work you want to put out there. You know what you’re capable of. Your instinct is telling you that you can push a little more. That you can raise your bar a little higher, a little better. You think that the world deserves to see the best thing out of your shed. You don’t want to settle for less, because it was never in your book.
But all these expectations leave you no room to breathe. Then you come to falter: You‘re stuck. Lost in the dark, and you don't know where to go. Exhausted, you stop working altogether.
Taking a break, getting away from the screen, having food, talking to your friends, walking around, or doing “non-thinking” repetitive tasks that engage your senses is wise. What’s (probably) not wise is to expect that you will encounter something great the moment you sit down and start working on it again. Because the expectations will come rushing in again, forming unhealthy pressure. The thing is: You don’t want to start with unhealthy pressure.
So what do you do?
Let go of the expectations. At least for now.
In this brief moment, you are unrestrained. Zero expectations. This is a given permission for you to make something terrible. Pour out some bad ideas. Get into it like you’re about to make the most outlandish stuff you can make. Foolish and ludicrous ideas are now your ally. Craft something cliché. Churn out the mediocre stuff you despise so much. Is it stupid? Good. Keep at it.
Bad ideas are neither quantity nor quality — they are neutral. This gives you a moment to start new and small without overthinking it because that brain power can be saved for making more important decisions later on as the idea gets sharpened gradually. Whether the bad stuff gets used in the draft or not, it doesn’t matter. Because what bad ideas give you is a new firmer step and roughly the next little steps of what you don’t want to do. It can lead to ideas you haven’t revisited, techniques you never really think of using, or something new entirely. Possibilities can emerge from recognizing bad ideas, and we can definitely hold on to possibilities in the dark.
So when in the dark, allow yourself to make something bad.
Let the light and the dark coexist
I’m a firm believer in balance (and I say this not in Thanos’ manner).
Creativity and creative block balance each other. I believe a new level of creativity can happen when faced with a creative block, similar to how suffering makes happiness more meaningful. With this change of mindset, we can face creative block in a different, and perhaps more positive, approach.
To this, I’d say that we shall not have too much of the dark and we shall never be in the light too long, for we will burn.